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Month: May 2022

The Crisis Era in Terms of Khaldun’s Theory of Dynasty Formation

The Crisis Era in Terms of Khaldun’s Theory of Dynasty Formation

I recently posted about The Muqaddimah by Ibn Khaldun, a remarkable book on world history that was written in the 14th century, but has many ideas about political and social science that fit right in with modern philosophical views. In my post I couldn’t help but wonder what the author would say about the state of the world today, were he to somehow be here to observe it. He was a pretty successful guy in his time, as I understand it, and to time travel him to our mess of an era would probably be rude, but I guess if it was just for a consultation and then he got sent back home it would be OK.

So how he would describe the state of our civilization today? He would obviously be amazed at all the advanced technology, and at the population level and degree of urbanization across the planet, which he would have thought was unachievable because of the inherent limitations of “sedentary culture.” He also, I imagine, would be surprised by the prevalence of democratic government. While he mentions the Greeks and Romans in The Muqadimmah, I don’t recall that he ever acknowledges their systems of government in ancient times. He may not have even been aware of them.

If he actually was aware of the nature of ancient Greek and Roman government, he would certainly recognize them as the antecedents of our modern democratic systems. If not, their existence would be a real eye-opener for him. Either way, I think he could still find a way to frame his understanding of our government in terms of his theory of dynastic formation. He would say something to the effect that we had invested royal authority in a representative body by means of cleverly crafted laws. Assuming he had access to all the history between his time and now, he would also note that the laws were often found faulty and had to be revised, and sometimes broke down altogether in periods of incredibly destructive warfare. He might wonder if we really knew what we were doing.

He would probably be disappointed with the relative statuses of Christianity and Islam today. In The Muqaddimah he frequently refers to the European Christians as a people, but does not have much to say about them except to acknowledge that they live up to the north of the areas he is mainly interested in, which are Spain, North Africa and the Middle East (he uses different names), that is, the Muslim world. He is writing during the Islamic Golden Age, after all. If he were here today, he would have to face the reality that European Christians have successfully spread their culture to new lands across the seas and are generally richer and more powerful than the nations of the Islamic world.

Looking at the United States today, he would probably observe a decline in religious organization, and note that religion no longer acted as a restraining influence. He would then observe that the royal authority of the representative government was also in decline, and would probably attribute that to the generational distance from the time of the global war which had established the current dynasty. He would recognize the richness and diversity of our sedentary culture as a sign of a civilization in its final disintegrative phase.

Does it even make sense to describe the government of the U.S. as a “dynasty?” Well, it might, in order to shoehorn Khaldun’s theory into the modern era. The current dynasty in the U.S. could be understood as the institutional framework that came into existence in the aftermath of World War II, when there was strong group feeling in the country, and trust in big institutions. As the generations have passed that group feeling and trust have eroded, and the royal authority of the government has eroded accordingly. The dynasty (that is, institutional framework) founded four generations ago is now disintegrating; hence the reeling sense of chaos that pervades our society.

I think that the way Khaldun would describe our state is something like what follows. The absence of religion (shared values) as a restraining influence (ordering principle) means that royal authority (rule of law) is required to establish order. For a new dynasty (institutional framework) to form, a new faction must arise which has the group feeling (solidarity, consensus) and desert attitude (courage, willingness to sacrifice) to achieve superiority and establish its royal authority (recognized right to rule). Applying this model to the ongoing partisan conflict between the red zone and blue zone factions in our society, about which I’ve blogged a great deal, it’s clear that the winner of the conflict will be whichever faction most successfully marshals these qualities of solidarity and courage. That is, whichever faction has the strongest group feeling.

Seen in this light, that each faction has a social media bubble, where a consensus on facts and values is continuously reinforced, makes perfect sense. It’s an effort to sustain group feeling during the conflict, since losing that group feeling means granting superiority to the other faction. It’s really that simple.

Which faction is currently favored in the conflict? A few years back I would have speculated that the red zone faction, rallying around former President Trump, had a stronger group feeling. They really seemed to have a greater solidarity of purpose than the blue zone faction, split between its progressives and moderates. But after the failed coup attempt in early 2021, my sense is that the strength of their faction just wasn’t quite enough to achieve superiority, and now they are on the defensive. However, I would note, as Khaldun might put it, that the red zone has been more clever at manipulating the laws of royal authority to favor their faction.

I’d like to think that Ibn Khaldun would agree with my interpretation of modern events in light of his historical model. I bet that if we did snatch him out of time to come observe our era, he wouldn’t want to go back just yet – not until he saw how events in the rest of this phase of civilization unfold.

A Really Good History Book from about Six Hundred Years Ago

A Really Good History Book from about Six Hundred Years Ago

I recently finished The Muqaddimah by Ibn Khaldun, a book which had been part of my tsundoku for some time and which I finally got around to reading in connection to generations theory research. Khaldun’s work is actually referenced in The Fourth Turning, by William Strauss and Neil Howe, in the chapter on archetypes in history. I might have remembered this, but it was only when I rediscovered the fact that I felt compelled to pull The Muqaddimah off my shelf to read it and find the connections.

Khaldun has his own theory of a generational cycle in politics, or at least a generational progression. It’s basically the idea that as the generations pass, the authority of a dynasty declines and eventually disappears altogether. The founding generation establishes and consolidates the authority, and the next generation continues to benefit from it while beginning the process of constricting it. The third generation is just living in the shadow of that authority, even as the dynasty is in its most materially prosperous phase. The fourth and last generation of the dynasty is dissolute and wastes the legacy of the previous generations; at that point the dynastic authority disintegrates.

The parallels to the turnings theory of Strauss & Howe, which also has a four-part cycle and theorizes four generational archetypes, are plain. There’s also a similarity to the cycles of government identified in ancient times by Polybius. It’s fascinating to think that Polybius was writing fifteen hundred years before Khaldun, and Khaldun was writing over six hundred years before our time, and yet these parallels are there, even with modern thinking. It’s like these different scholars writing in different eras are all discovering the same fundamental truths.

Khaldun’s work is comprehensive in its scope (he’s what you would call a polymath) and reminds me a bit of Aristotle, just in the breadth of what he covers and the systematic way he goes about categorizing and explaining things. His work is also reminiscent of Herodotus, in that he writes about historiography and the importance of applying a discerning intellect to the study of history, lest one simply repeat the misinformation that is frequently passed down as historical fact.

While he does echo these ancient Greek philosophers, he is also plainly a denizen of the medieval age. He takes for granted the validity of his religion, Islam, and believes in spiritual reality and supernatural powers (he has a whole section railing against sorcery and its danger to religion). His model of physics is based on the four elements, and his model of biology and medicine is the medieval one of the four humours corresponding to those elements. We might think of these views as scientifically backward, but he’s simply working with what was known in his time, before the advances of the modern era.

What’s truly remarkable about Khaldun’s work is his discourse on social and political science. He has this conceptual framework around which he constructs a theory of how and why civilization forms, and its sources in religious and dynastic authority. In his view, religion forms dynasty and dynasty forms civilization, which sort of marks him as a theocratic medievalist. But you could think of this view as simply the idea that government must be rooted in some kind of moral ground in order to establish its definition of justice.

In his treatise, Khaldun repeatedly invokes the same concepts as he describes civilization in general, and the difference between simple desert civilization and what he calls sedentary civilization with its wealth and cities, basically describing a rural-urban divide. Let’s see if I can do a good job summarizing his theory.

In order for humans to live together cooperatively in a society they need some sort of “restraining influence” to prevent them from simply predating on one another. This influence can come from religion or it can come from the “royal authority” of a ruler. The royal authority of a ruling dynasty derives from “group feeling,” which is like social cohesion within a population, creating mutual esteem and loyalty. At first a dynasty has “desert attitude,” meaning a simple way of life and qualities of toughness and courage. This enables it to prevail over its enemies and establish its rule. But subsequent generations of the dynasty lose the desert attitude as the dynasty develops “sedentary culture.” The dynasty prospers economically, its cities grow in wealth and population and become advanced in the sciences and crafts, but all of this is at the expense of group feeling. Eventually the dynasty falls to some other one which has the desert attitude and group feeling that enable it to achieve military superiority.

It’s clear why Strauss & Howe would have referenced Khaldun, since his analysis has similarities to their turnings theory. You can also see how Khaldun anticipates the future thinking of Western philosophers. While reading The Muqaddimah and encountering his ideas, it occurred to me that the Age of Enlightenment might as well be considered to be the time when Western philosophy finally caught up to Ibn Khaldun. Honestly, encountering these ideas in a book written in the 14th century makes me reconsider the whole concept of a rift between the “medieval” and “modern” ages. It also make me wonder how Khaldun would see our world today, if he were to somehow be here to observe it.

I found The Muqaddimah to be a very easy read. Khaldun writes with confident authority and with common sense, and his thinking is very clear. Credit must go to the translator, Franz Rosenthal, for transforming Khaldun’s Arabic into straightforward English. I’m very happy to add The Muqaddimah to my “Read” bookshelf, from where I’m sure I will keeping referring to it as I continue my studies of generations and history.

Living in the Land of the COVID

Living in the Land of the COVID

My partner is off this morning to work as a substitute teacher. She gets this sub work because the full-time teachers are always out…with COVID-19. But then school is probably where she caught the coronavirus. So this is where we’re at now in Pandemic Phase II: sending essential workers through a revolving door of exposure and contagion and 3-5 days of quarantine. Maybe for other workers it was like this in Phase I, but we were all lucky enough in our house to be in lockdown the whole time. I guess as a society we can’t stop doing this, because oh no, there might be a Recession!

Pandemic Phase II

Pandemic Phase II

Another housemate has caught the ‘rona. Amazingly, I am still testing negative (fingers crossed). Isolation protocols and masking indoors work. Now that we’ve reached this state in our household, when I go out with a face mask on I don’t feel so conspicuously out of place, even though I live in an area where 90% of the public is not masked. I realize that I need to mask because there is a chance I am an asymptomatic carrier.

When I’m out in public and the only one masked I’m not at all self-conscious; I just feel like I’m in on a secret. But it was never really a secret, was it?

With these new protocols in place – wearing the face mask in the house, taking a rapid antigen test before going out – it’s like we’re in a new phase of the pandemic. Are we riding out the next wave? Learning to live with endemic COVID? I don’t really know; I’m just telling my story here.

So You’ve Got The Coronavirus

So You’ve Got The Coronavirus

Well, it was probably inevitable. Aileen has tested positive for Covid-19. She was feeling a little sick, mostly a sore throat, so we got some rapid antigen tests at the drug store across the street. We had already used up our supply of tests that we had accumulated earlier (including the government ones) because Aileen routinely gets notifications about exposure from the school where she teaches. That’s why this isn’t really a surprise, seeing as schools are incubators of disease.

We each took a test, and her result was positive. Mine was negative, but one has to wonder if it’s just a matter of time for me. We’re masking around the house, keeping our distance from one another, and have sent her son and the cat to go stay with his Dad. I’ll make sure to take a test before making any decision about leaving the house.

Meanwhile, I wrote this poem for the occasion:

An American With COVID

I know someone with COVID
and I love her just the same.
She only got the COVID
’cause she had to play the game.
She got her shot and wore her mask,
it’s really quite a shame.
She had to earn a paycheck
to have money to her name.
If you know someone with COVID
there’s no reason you should blame.
They’re just another person out there
trying to win the game.